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It’s one thing to resist getting the hang of a smart phone. It’s quite another to allow fear of learning, or more precisely fear that you can’t learn, to get in the way of career success.
At work, you might seize up at the prospect of having to learn a new computer skill, a new set of workplace processes, or dealing with a new boss. Paradoxically, the more you worry about change, the harder it gets to make the change. Once upon a time, learning a specific set of skills or holding a college or professional degree was the key to the workplace kingdom. Think of all those people with computer science and engineering degrees. During the height of the high-tech boom, people with technical skills were being snapped up as fast as they could sign their names. And just as fast, the bust came. Many of those people lost their jobs and are having a hard time finding new ones. They’re told to go back to school, to learn new skills. But it’s not easy, particularly for older workers. What’s going on here? One problem may be lack of time. The more things you learn, the more you may feel you have to hold on to. Your mind may already feel overcrowded; you don’t have the mental energy or space to learn new things. With the world spinning faster and faster and the difficulty of retaining information, resistance to change is completely understandable. After all, faster isn’t necessarily better and sometimes we just want the onslaught to stop. It seems more comfortable to not even start the process. A deeper problem has to do with your lack of confidence in your ability to learn at all. Unless you continually learn in life, fear overtakes your confidence that you can learn. I see it all the time in women whose eyes glaze over when they have to do something mathematical – thanks to teachers and parents who brainwashed them into falsely believing they weren’t good at math. I see it in men, who convinced that they are nerds, hide in corners at cocktail parties when they’re supposed to be schmoozing with clients. It’s actually not a case of not being able to learn, but rather of becoming frozen when faced with something new and unfamiliar. Another block has to do with your comfort level, which is closely allied with your sense of personal identity. Learning a new skill is scary because it demands both effort and that you broaden your image of yourself. Over time, we humans become convinced that we are a certain way, and that the way we are is written in stone. We even defend being who we think we are. Over time, we calcify. We may feel we deserve to coast along on our merits. I think of old college professors who keep teaching the same thing year after year and long past their prime. They have tenure to protect them; the rest of us don’t. Or I think of the grandpa who might go online so he can communicate by e-mail with his favorite grandchild, but who steadfastly refuses to learn about computers, saying he’s fine with doing things the old way. Ironically, the more we believe that we are unable to learn, the more unable to learn we become. Learning a new skill is tough, but if you reframe the situation, it can be challenging and exhilarating. The trick is to tap into a memory of a time when you did learn something new. If you can clearly visualize the experience (learning to ski or to drive, learning to use a computer, or learning to read music) and recall the memory of conquering the task, then you may be able to trigger the sense of pleasure that came from the experience. If you don’t get ahead of yourself thinking of everything you won’t be able to learn, and instead focus on what you have already learned that you thought you couldn’t, your fears will dissipate, you mind will unlock, and you will learn new things. Bob Mueller is the vice president of advancement & community Relations at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.